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St Paul's ChurchSermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Fifth Sunday of Lent – March 21, 2010

In the Name of God, the eternal provider; of Jesus, the Lord of life; and the Spirit, the holy life-giver. Amen.

 Sometimes we must act in the moment, audaciously and fearlessly, or the opportunity may slip through our fingers. Often the choices and decisions we make will show us where our hearts are—and where our treasure resides.

 All four of the Gospels include an account of a woman who anoints Jesus—each containing details that differ somewhat. Luke speaks of an unnamed woman at the home of Simon the Pharisee who is identified as “a sinner,” who washed the feet of Jesus in her tears and dried them with her hair.

 Mark and Matthew record a similar event in Bethany at the home of Simon the Leper where a woman who is not named pours ointment on the head of Jesus instead of his feet. She is rebuked by his disciples for wasting expensive oil. Both Mark and Matthew end their accounts with these words, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

 We heard John’s version today, the anointing in Bethany at the home of Jesus’ dear friends Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus whom Jesus restored to life just before this celebration. It is Mary who anoints Jesus here and the setting is at a thanksgiving dinner given for Jesus and his friends. Mary uses a pound of costly perfume made from pure nard to anoint his feet and wipes them with her hair. The fragrance would linger and fill the whole house so that everyone would savor its sweet aroma.

 We are standing at the threshold of the church’s annual observance of the last days in the life of Jesus—his last supper with friends, his passion and death on the cross, his burial and resurrection. It should be no surprise that the Gospel today carries all the elements of the Easter story. The story is set on a Sunday evening, when not long after earliest and newly gathered Christian communities would gather to share in the Eucharist.

 Mary’s washing of the feet of Jesus was the custom when guests arrived for dinner as a way to refresh them and remove the soil and sand from their feet. It would, however, not been done by a member of the household but by a servant. So Mary is taking on the role that Jesus will take on at his last supper and I would imagine that her behavior raised many eyebrows just as Jesus did when in the upper room he girded himself in a towel and began to wash his disciples feet. Recall how Peter protested.

 But this night they are celebrating a resurrection dinner not long after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and in the days ahead they would stand in awe and fear of the resurrection of their Lord, Teacher, and Friend—truly the Son of God. Judas’ sinister greed is revealed at this dinner just as it will be at the Last Supper when that same greed leads to his betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. The anointing of Jesus’ feet is in anticipation of what will take place in preparation for his burial not long after this occasion. Yes, all the elements of the story that is about to unfold for us in the next week are right here in this story.

 Even as Mary’s actions take on prophetic overtones that point to the approaching Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, the Gospel today is more than a forecast of the future and more than a collection of allegories and metaphors. It is a story of extravagance and of breaking barriers and taking huge risks in order to exercise that extravagance.

 Last Sunday we retold a similar story that teaches us about the extravagance of God who like the Prodigal Father just loves us—period—not because of what we have done or not done, not because of what we deserve. God just loves us because that is who our God is. It is a not a story about my faithfulness, but God’s faithfulness.

 If we have learned or have been led to believe that there are limits on God’s love or that we have to earn or win God’s love or that if we stray from God we can lose that love, the parable of the Prodigal Son is meant to set the record straight for us. God’s love, like the Prodigal Father’s, is simply a given—a constant, abiding, and unchangeable given.

 In a sense, today’s story is the other side of the coin—one of response to God’s radical love. Here we find an unmarried woman breaking the cultural taboo of approaching and touching a single male in a rather intimate way and certainly doing what is against the norm as far as whose duty it is to wash the guest’s feet. She is reckless as well with her copious use of expensive ointment much to the chagrin of Judas who reprimands her sternly for wasting what could have been sold to care for the poor. Jesus goes beyond the demands of social convention, recognizes the love and the need behind Mary’s act, and he tells Judas to leave her alone. His response to Judas is not meant to dismiss the obligation to care for the poor, but to remind them all of his impending death and the fact the he will not always be physically present with them as we was at the moment.

 But Judas just can’t cope with a leader who allows women to openly and sensually display their love for him, and he betrays Jesus. Judas probably couldn’t cope with a leader who allowed little children to approach him as equals, or who hobnobbed with people that he—as well as the Pharisees—looked upon as the scum of the earth. Jesus did all of those things. In this brief heated exchange we find a marked contrast between Mary, the true disciple who has acted selflessly and lovingly for Jesus and Judas the charlatan disciple, who is a thief and a traitor.

 But Judas’ question does have merit for us. I think it begs us to measure, to consider our own discipleship—our own response and level of commitment to following Jesus as a 21qst century disciple. When we are challenged to change our priorities in order to be more faithful to the promises of our baptism, what questions might we ask ourselves that distract us from doing that? Question and objections that justify our failure to go against the norm like Mary and Jesus did? How do we convince ourselves that it is OK just to coast along in our relationship to God and one another rather than to stretch ourselves? Where and when might God be urging us on to imitate Mary’s example of extravagance in the giving of our energy, our gifts and talents, and our personal resources?

 Easter is just fourteen days away and it seems an appropriate time to ask these tough questions—given the extravagance that Jesus displayed for us on a cross on Good Friday by shedding his blood for each one of us.

 Mary poured out her whole bottle of expensive oil with no remorse whatsoever, knowing that it was but a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of God’s love emanating from the Messiah whose feet she bathed. In that moment, she smells the fragrance of new life—an aroma of joy that fills the whole house where they are dining that Sunday night, one that would fill the church—one that fills this church, this community.

What is your “expensive oil?” “Your “pound of nard?” Where is your tendency to be extravagant with it? What are the questions Judas might pose to you in an attempt to prevent you from using it lavishly?

Sometimes we must act in the moment, boldly and fearlessly, or the opportunity may slip through our fingers. Often the choices and decisions we make truly show us where our hearts are—and where our treasure resides.

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